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What do landlords need to know about repairs and habitability?

Your renters are bound to have a complaint about their rental unit from time to time; repairs are just another part of owning property. Landlords have the responsibility to maintain a habitable residence. However, renters cannot withhold rent on a whim.

Any repair requests should fall under the habitability requirements you must meet, and the tenant must make the request in the correct way.

Making repairs that are necessary for habitability

By law, landlords must make sure that a residence does not leak. Roofs, windows and doors should have weatherproofing. The home should also have running water (both hot and cold), with plumbing in good working order. The electric, gas and heating systems must also all be adequate and working properly.

If there are stairs inside or outside the residence, and areas that tenants share in common, such as parking lots and courtyards, you must maintain these. Part of maintenance includes ensuring buildings are free of pests such as bugs and rodents, and that there is no garbage or refuse loose or lying about on the property.

Understanding tenants’ responsibilities

You may schedule regular maintenance to keep things running smoothly, but when something goes awry within a unit, it falls to the tenant to give you proper notice. Ideally, a tenant will write a letter to you and keep a copy of the communication and the day he or she sent it. You have a window of time in which you may make repairs, and a tenant cannot withhold rent during this time.

Some repairs cannot wait. In those cases, tenants should also call or email you to make sure you receive the message quickly. You do not want a broken toilet leaking water all over the floor any more than the tenant does.

Dealing with difficult tenants

A disgruntled tenant may prove difficult to satisfy, but if you do not keep things up to code, he or she could cause you problems by requesting an inspector from the Department of Building Inspection. Even if the inspector does find an issue, you can get a copy of the report, and you still have a reasonable amount of time to complete the repairs. It is only if the matter goes further that the tenant may withhold rent.

Even though you may wish to rid yourself of a tenant who makes things difficult for you, the law restricts you from retaliation. After a tenant reports you to a city agency or withholds rent, you should not raise the rent or evict the tenant for the next six months, or a judge is likely to determine your act was retaliation. A tenant who has damages as a result of a habitability issue that you do not address could also sue you for up to $5,000.

Update on Unlawful Detainer filings

Alameda County courts are still closed to the public.   The court recently has opened up for unlawful detainer cases where the Landlord can show by a declaration under penalty of perjury facts that specifically spell out what the tenant has done to put the Landlord and/or other tenants in fear of danger from the tenant.  If you cannot state those specific facts, then the Landlord cannot file an unlawful detainer action at this time.  There is a moratorium on those type of filings until further notice from the court.  A date certain is not in place as yet.